Saturday, December 14, 2013

The BLack Piet Controversy

i wish i had an easy answer here .my love for all things dutch and my moral compass seem to be in some sort of collision, added to which is that the racism of 'schwartze piet' is very different from the racism that imbues american culture. the new  york times article on the subject does a large disservice by implying that the origin of piet's blackness is believed in nederland to be the dust covering chimney sweeps.  it's less innocent than that and at the same time less ghastly than our racism. [this doesn't let the dutch off the hook, by the way.  the main difference between their slavery and ours is that we dragged our slaves home from africa, while the western european slaveowners stayed on their conquered land and maintained slavery there. the dutch were especially cruel to escaped slaves who were captured, and, victims themselves of the spanish inquisition, meted out tortures the pope would have found impressive.]

but black piet isn't a descendant of those slaves. he is, rather, a moor.  their santa claus is much truer to his origin than our coca-cola boy.  he's sinterklaas, as in saint nicholas, a genuine [though thin, ascetic looking] bishop who lived in the middle ages.  his kindness to the poor evidently transformed after his death into the giving of presents to good children.  in once-Spanish-colonized nederland, he remains spanish, and comes over on a ship to holland. schwartze piet is his servant, not slave, and dresses in an approximation of the medieval moors, just as sinterklaas  dresses in an approximation [bright red, however] of a medieval bishop's garb.  piet is definitely black, and definitely inferior to santa--but no more than any worker for  a good but demanding boss would be. over the years, piet has been cloned, so in the children's books i use to practice my dutch, there are often a bunch of piets, each with control over his own department.  and though they will give coal rather than goodies to bad kids, they give nuts and fruits and nice presents to the good ones on st. Nickolaus day, dec.5.

as a political figure, then black piet is less a figure of racism than a reflection of the cycle of war, invasion, imperialism, colonization, and its nasty accouterments.  the moors invade spain; the spanish invade the netherlands, the netherlands invade africa and the new world, and round and round it goes. maybe it's nice that the spanish inquisitors gets turned into a kindly saint who gives gifts to children, while the moors who invaded spain hang around to help the spanish guy out.  but i'm an american, and the sight of the comic little black figure can only make me cringe.  it will be interesting when i go back to nederland next month to talk to my friends there.  what does that african figure mean to them? how much is it a necessary part of their culture?  and does it matter that the good saint figure comes from the land that colonized the dutch?  what would be left of their Christmas mythology if parts of it were changed; what happens to their reputation as the west's most tolerant nation if they aren't changed?

1 comment:

Ken Goldstein said...

I remember watching Black Piet arriving in Well with a bit of wonder and confusion. I knew enough to know that what I didn't know would change what I thought I felt about what I was feeling. But I'm used to that and trying to shut down judgment this time of year.